On a rainy day last April I was walking near the courthouse when I heard the most ethereal music coming from the cemetery behind it. I turned to see a few hazy figures gathered around a gravestone. They were singing a four-part harmony that sounded upbeat but yet offbeat, the closest sound I could compare it to with my untrained ears would be southern gospel. But these figures in the mist, clad in old fashioned clothes and hats, looked to be northern New Englanders rather than southern slaves.
The sound drew me nearer, into the cemetery itself, where I stood at a respectful distance, listening to these harmonies both pleasing and yet unusual. When the group finished, they turned to greet me. By now I could see evidence of modern dress on most of the singers. As I drew closer they appeared to be in solid form, and I became reasonably sure they were not spirits who would evaporate into the haze.
Once we started chatting I learned they were sacred harp singers, drawn to the cemetery to congregate around the gravesite of Supply Belcher to pay their respects. It was the sound of his compositions I had heard wafting from the gravestones behind the old courthouse on Main Street. This group of shape-note singers was led by an old-fashioned looking man named Aldo Thomas Ceresa from New York City. He explained that he was on a mission to find the gravesites of all the composers featured in the Sacred Heart songbook.
It was a memorable moment for me, to see this hometown evidence that local composer Supply Belcher’s music lives on. He has always been one of my favorite Franklin County subjects, and his life story takes up a long chapter in my book Remembering Franklin County. Belcher’s influence over two-hundred years later is indeed impressive. His work can be found recorded on several compilations of American music and even avant garde composers such as John Cage and Gloria Coates have embraced his work and been inspired by it.
And to think this talented composer lived right here in Farmington in the 18th century…
In my chapter on Belcher I concentrated on the role he played in early Franklin County history and neglected his formative years as a composer in Massachusetts. In my book I mention that Belcher studied with early American composer William Billings. Since then I’ve read that recent research shows that his connection to Billings was not as close as it had been assumed. Here are few more interesting aspects of Belcher’s life that did not find their way into my chapter on him:
Belcher worked as a merchant in Boston when he was around 20 years old. Maybe then he met Paul Revere, who later made the bell for the Farmington Academy.
Belcher was twenty-four when the revolutionary war broke out and was one of the Minutement who answered Paul Revere’s (or another rider’s) call to arms. He was mustered from Stoughton as part of the troops who fought the British at Cambridge.
After the war he purchased a farm in Stoughton where he established a tavern. Legend has it that much singing took place there.
He was a violinist and singer as well as a composer and is thought to have led Farmington’s first choir.
His “Ordination Anthem” was performed at the Hallowell Academy in 1796, and it was after this event that a local newspaper proclaimed him “the Handel of Maine,” and the title stuck.
Belcher was one of several talented composers who wrote music in New England during the Revolutionary War era and the early years of the republic. He helped to create an indigenous sacred music that still sounds vital and celebratory when sung today. But as the young country settled and became prosperous, subsequent generations looked back to Europe for their inspiration. American composers could afford more formal training, often studying in Germany far away from their home-grown traditions. Early shape-note singing and fuguing psalm tunes like Belcher’s were dismissed as crude and irreverent and nearly forgotten.
But not forgotten on that rainy day last April when the sounds of our early settlers were revived around a two- hundred-year-old gravestone in a New England village burying ground.